When I told people I was writing about Manchester's Curry Mile—the strip of South Asian restaurants, takeaways, and sweet shops that stretches through the city's Rusholme neighbourhood—there was one phrase I kept hearing: "It's not what it used to be."
This didn't surprise me. British people love to talk about how much better things were in the old days, from the weather (it always used to snow at Christmas), to sports (footballers never dived) or music (One D are no Take That).
This is particularly true when it comes to food. Cadbury's Creme Eggs were better before Hershey elbowed in and changed everything, and fish and chip portion sizes have only gotten smaller. Fruit and veg aren't as fresh as they used to be either, now that farmers are pumping them full of pesticides.
But could there be some truth behind the skepticism? Is the Curry Mile going downhill? Taking the negative comments with a pinch of curry powder, I picked up my camera, loosened my belt, and headed to Rusholme for single-minded curry consumption.
The Curry Mile's reputation as the best place in the North West—and, depending on who you ask, the whole country—for Indian and Pakistani food goes back more than 50 years. Rusholme became home to a large immigrant population in the 1960s, when people moved from the Asian subcontinent to work in Manchester's textile factories. As restaurants specialising in the home cuisine of its new arrivals started to open, this stretch of Wilmslow Road turned into a Friday night dining destination—a strip people could wander down and stop for mango lassi, samosas, and ice cream.
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On my visit to the Curry Mile, I start with a trip to Sanam, an Indian restaurant and sweet shop founded in 1963, and one of the strip's oldest establishments. It's a Tuesday night around 6 PM and while the dining area is pretty quiet, there's a queue at the sweet counter. I get talking to restaurant manager Mr Khan, who has worked on the Mile for over 30 years.
"I do it for the relationships, for meeting interesting characters," he tells me. "Whether it is a tramp or a king who comes through that door, I'll give them the same level of service."
Then comes my first shock—it turns out that Khan, and many of his friends and peers, don't consider the area to be a "Curry Mile" anymore.
"It's a shisha mile now," says Khan. "Times have changed. Lots of the old restaurants have closed. It's all kebabs, shisha, and takeaway."
Khan might be right. It's certainly easier to spot a kebab shop than a curry house around here. As for shisha cafes, there are now over 30 on this stretch of road, their plastic tent-like fronts seeing restaurants flout the smoking ban by allowing smokers to sit outside on patios protected from the elements.
Perhaps because of this new preference for shisha over masala, Shezan, a restaurant Khan used to work at, ended up closing.
"We had just 12 tables," he tells me. "On Friday nights, we'd have a queue of 80 people outside. They'd all wait at the Albert Inn [a beat-up old pub right around the corner from the Mile] and I'd have to send a waiter down to get them when their table came up."
Sadly, what I hear from fellow Curry Mile veterans is much the same. Shabir Mughal, who owns the Spicy Mint curry house, says the local council hasn't done enough to preserve the history of the area.
"Since people can smoke inside at a shisha bar, they go there instead," he says. "They have lost trust in the area and the reputation we built up over 40 years has gone."
But has the food served by the Curry Mile's remaining restaurants also suffered? After Sanam and Spicy Mint, I call into two of my old favourites—Indian eatery Shere Khan and Mughli, known for its charcoal pit tandoori chicken and lamb chops. I'm glad to say, they're as a good as I remember.
"It warms you up when it's cold," says Razza, who is sitting down to a lamb tandoori at Mughli when I interrupt to ask about his meal. And it's true—a curry, especially a hot one, does make the shitty British winter (which seems to last from September to May in Manchester) feel slightly more bearable. But what about when it's summer?
"Well, then you sweat and it cools you down," Razza replies. Curry, it seems, is an all-weather dish.
I get a different take from James in Shere Khan, who has ordered tikka masala.
"It's good to line your stomach before a night out," he says, before reflecting, "or soak it up after."
Again, curry shows its versatility. On the Curry Mile, the dish can start or end any night, no matter how messy (and when you're ten pints-deep trying to eat a Rogan Josh armed only with a naan bread, that can be pretty messy indeed).
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Alcohol has long been a part of the Curry Mile business model. Students would call in on their way home from a night out (the Mile sits between the city centre and Fallowfield, where most students live) for a curry. Restaurants would often close at 11 PM and then reopen around 2 or 3 AM to catch the tanked-up traffic.
But times have changed. The instant gratification offered by new dining services such as Deliveroo and the fact that students are paying more for tuition than ever before, has made dinner in an Indian restaurant a slow and expensive alternative to the cheap convenience of a doner kebab.
Khan thinks it's a bit more complicated than that—and of course, it is—but says he definitely sees fewer young people in his restaurant than he used to.
"It is many different things, like when they changed the parking rules, so you can't park on the street round here, and of course the economic downturn in 2007," he says. "But we don't see young people in here like we used to. When the Curry Mile was great, it was amazing, like riding a wave. It was the right time, right place—like The Beatles. It can only happen once and it won't happen again."
But if the crowded tables and piles of poppadoms I see being devoured at Mughli, Shere Khan, and Spicy Mint tonight are anything to go by, Manchester's love affair with curry is certainly still happening.